Wants and Needs: Goaltenders

By Chris

The Sabres definitely look like a tired hockey club. They’ve just coughed up the division lead and after tomorrow night’s game against the Sharks, they won’t suit up again until March 2 against Pittsburgh. For many players that are struggling right now (Craig Rivet, Steve Montador and pretty much everyone else), the two week rest should be extremely beneficial.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the team’s most important player will get any sort of break. Team USA will be counting on Ryan Miller to lead them to the medal round and American head coach Ron Wilson has already said he plans on riding one goalie throughout the tournament.

Both Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina Trophy Winner who has struggled this season, and Jonathan Quick are still behind Miller on the depth chart (However, Quick could be a dark horse to start between the pipes). So Miller is likely to get a large majority of ice time.

He hasn’t looked good the last few weeks for the Sabres and there could be a few reasons for that.

The first is simply fatigue. He’s played a lot this season and the compressed schedule is finally taking its toll. He was lights out early in the year but maybe he’s just wearing down. Hypothetically, playing in the Olympics would then be the worst thing for the Sabres and their playoff hopes. A tired Miller now means an even more exhausted Miller after the tournament.

Another reason could be the stress of the Olympics messing with his mind.

Miller has become a very focused, even-keeled player. Publicly, he doesn’t seem to let outside factors bother him. Things are what they are and if he can control them then he will, and if not, then he’ll just let it all play out.

He’s definitely gotten more attention from the media this season than in years past. Factor in his Hart-worthy first half with the buzz of the Vancouver games and it’s a four-ring media circus. With the games now only a few days away, it’s possible that he’s betrayed himself a little by letting himself start to think about playing for Team USA.

If that’s the case, then it’s actually good news for the Sabres. When the Olympics are over, that added pressure will be lifted off of his shoulders. The international press will mostly be gone and he can go back to worrying just about the playoffs, the Stanley Cup and Sabres hockey. The possibility of his attention being divided would be non-existent.

The third reason why he’s faltering now could be a combination of the fatigue theory with the fact that he’s averaging out. Let’s face it, we haven’t seen a goaltender play that well for that long since Dominik Hasek won back-to-back Hart Trophies over 10 years ago.

With Miller’s recent struggles, it’s possible that he’s simply coming back to earth. That’s not to say that he can’t get back to that super-elite level. Because he’s very capable of it. It’s just that you can only stay in that zone for so long before you inevitably fall into a bit of a slump. I’m not sure there’s an easy fix for this other than a few good bounces to get the hot streak going again.

Now the team hasn’t been very good in front of Miller since they got back from the West Coast. At least not as good as they had been to start the year. Yes, Miller has let in a few softies, but some of the other goals could have been prevented with better backchecking and a little more physicality in their own end. So even if Miller does get his game back, they won’t be much better unless the players in front of him start being more responsible again.

And Miller knows they haven’t been playing well enough. Listen to his interview after last night’s loss to Carolina (An aside to all the media outlets that cover the team: We love hearing full interviews, so the more you guys post stuff like this, the better).

The easy solution to the fatigue theory would be to bench Miller in favor of Patrick Lalime every once in awhile. In a perfect world, that’s the perfect solution. Unfortunately, it looks like Lalime has fallen out of coach Lindy Ruff’s good graces again.

Lalime struggled early, but he looked great after a two-game conditioning stint in Portland. It’s no secret that his play is consistently strong when he gets a lot of work in. Lately, however, he’s been getting few starts and he hasn’t been making the most of his opportunities.

Lalime’s last three starts: a 4-3 shootout loss to Colorado in which he didn’t play that bad, a no-decision in Anaheim where he gave up four goals in 10 minutes (I was pretty upset with that no-decision) and a 4-0 loss to Columbus. Against the Blue Jackets, the team around him pretty much fell apart around him, but he also couldn’t give them a big save when they needed it.

With the Sabres’ slump and Deadline Day looming, the need to acquire a backup goaltender is a topic of conversation once again.

To be clear, sending Lalime down for another conditioning stint in Portland is not an option. Teams can only offer that opportunity to a player once. So if you want Lalime to get games in at the AHL level, General Manager Darcy Regier would have to waive him and hope he isn’t claimed.

If the Sabres do happen to be in the market for a backup (and I’m still not completely convinced that they are), then something will have to happen with Lalime. It doesn’t make sense for them to carry three goaltenders, so Lalime might be waived anyways.

It makes more sense to waive him and pay him an NHL salary in the minors than it does to buy him out (he’s an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and I don’t think a cap-conscious team like Buffalo would want to pay a portion of his salary next season). And if something were to happen to one of the goalies on the roster, they would have the ability to call him up if he clears waivers. Lalime as a No. 3 is undoubtedly better than unproven Jhonas Enroth.

So say the Sabres plan on waiving Lalime to make room for a new back up. Who could they look at and would making that move even make sense? Welcome to a special edition of “Wants and Needs.”

Martin Biron is the first name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. He’s currently the Islander’s third-stringer and is owed $427,979 for the rest of the season. He was a great teammate when he played here in Buffalo and Ruff might be less hesitant to start him in a game that isn’t the second half of a back-to-back.

But what would the Sabres have to trade away and is there another team that needs a starter (who could sign him to an extension) that has more assets to offer up to the Isles?

Marty Turco may be available, but his remaining salary for this season ($1,772,021) is almost equal to that of Lalime’s entire current contract ($2 milllion over two years). Plus, it’s unlikely Turco would embrace the backup role — even if it is only for a few months.

You might be able to make the case for Johan Hedberg in Atlanta as his contract expires after this season, but is he really an upgrade over Lalime?

The Sabres could look into bringing Ty Conklin back. He’s signed on with the Blues through 2011 and has been decent this calendar year (2-3, 2.67 GAA, .920 S%, 1 SO in six games — five starts). The real question is why St. Louis would be willing to part with him. Since the ball’s in their court, the price could be too steep.

Jaroslav Halak could also be on the block. He’s a restricted free agent on July 1 and will be due a significant raise from his current cap number of $775,000. Montreal may be open to trading one of their goaltenders but is Halak worth the risk as a rental backup goalie? Like Biron (and probably Turco), the team that ends up with Halak will be a team that’s willing to give him a chance to compete for the starting goaltender job. And that team will offer Montreal more valuable assets than the Sabres would if that team sees Halak as their goalie of the future.

Looking at those options, I don’t see Regier doing much of anything in terms of the backup goalie position. There really isn’t a market for it.

I really hope that it’s just fatigue that’s holding this hockey club back and making it look like it has more flaws than it really does. The Sabres have shown a lot of heart this year and have proven on more than one occasion that they’re a different team than the editions that choked the last two seasons.

If Regier does look at upgrading the roster at the deadline, I’d prefer that he focus on players who won’t be on the bench when the postseason rolls around.

3 Comments

  1. Mike

    I desperately want this losing streak to end for no other reason than I want to stop reading the comments on other blogs. It’s like the Sabres bludgeoned people’s grandparents and puppies to death in front of their children. People are pissed off and it’s just getting old, even though I’m pissed off and frustrated too.

  2. Patrick

    The solution isn’t trading for a goalie that Lindy Ruff “trusts,” it’s to compel him to actually play the goalie he’s got on the roster. Lalime was lights out for a stretch, and should’ve been playing more. I don’t fault Lalime in the least for his lack of playing time. Lindy decides who’s on the ice, and there is absolutely no excuse for him riding Miller to death.

    The current slump is a perfect example of burning a better opportunity to win three games for the expense of trying to win one. Practice tirades, random line generation, no rest for the weary goaltender, it all adds up to sustained negativity. I used to be really high on Lindy, but I was worried about Miller burning out in October and those fears are slowly confirming. That fault doesn’t fall to Miller or Lalime, but to Lindy.

  3. brad

    This post is actually a great example of “wants” versus “needs.” A new backup goaltender is the last thing the Sabres “need.” And yet, it continues to be #1 or #2 among the things fans seem to “want.” Maybe this is because everyone is so programmed to not expect anything out of Darcy Regier that trading for a new backup goalie seems like it is one of the few things within reach. But really, that is just change for change’s sake. There is no reason to switch backup goalies at this point. Let’s even assume that Miller gets injured during the Olympics. Can this Sabres team win the Cup with Turco in net? Of course not. It’s actually quite hilarious to even entertain that thought. So, honestly, what’s the point? Goaltending is funny. It can be the most important position on the team (see, Miller) or the least (see, Washington Capitals; see also, Chris Osgood. Compare with, the Carolina Hurricanes, led by MANNY LEGACY, beating Ryan Miller twice).

    Seriously. This team’ immediate needs include: a gritty, skilled, goal-scoring forward, a defensive defenseman with a heavy shot for the PP, a new owner, a new GM. THEN, they need a new backup goalie. Then I’d say new coach.

    Marty Biron? The guy got beat out by a 40-year-old for a starting job with the Islanders. A middle aged former Sabre is better than Marty Biron. Admit it – (and media – especially media) only want him back because they like his personality – not his puck-stopping skills.